International recognition of issues related to aging

Unlike the situation with other population groups such as women and children, no comprehensive international convention yet exists in relation to the rights of older persons.  However, the UN, including its specialized agencies such as the International Labour Organization (the “ILO”), has turned its attention to issues related to aging.  In 1982, the World Assembly on Ageing adopted the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing[118](the “Plan of Action”).  This document, endorsed by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 37/51, contains 62 recommendations aimed at strengthening the capacities of states to deal effectively with aging populations.  Nine years later, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Principles for Older Persons[119] (the “Principles for Older Persons”) which contains 18 principles relating to the areas of ‘independence’, ‘participation’, ‘care’, ‘self-fulfillment’ and ‘dignity’.   Every four years, the Economic and Social Council, through the Commission for Social Development, reviews the implementation of the Plan of Action and reports back to the General Assembly on the progress made within the UN system in achieving the goals and objectives of the plan.[120]

The Plan of Action identifies a number of important principles in relation to aging.  Many of the principles relate to the issues discussed in this paper, for example, the provision of accessible housing[121], appropriate health care services[122], appropriate home and institutional care services[123], adequate means of transport[124] and income security for older persons[125]. The document also addresses the issue of ‘eldercare’ and the need to support persons who care for elderly relatives[126]. The Plan of Action identifies the unique situation of elderly women and the need to adopt special measures to address the particular disadvantages that many elderly women face[127]. The Plan of Action identifies the worldwide prevalence of age discrimination in employment:

In most areas of the world, efforts by older persons to participate in work and economic activities which will satisfy their need to contribute to the life of the community and benefit society as a whole meet with difficulties.  Age discrimination is prevalent: many older workers are unable to remain in the labour force or to re-enter it because of age prejudice.

The Plan of Action recommends that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that older workers can continue to work under satisfactory conditions and enjoy security of employment.  Moreover:

Governments should eliminate discrimination in the labour market and ensure equality of treatment in professional life.  Negative stereotypes about older workers exist among some employers.  Governments should take steps to educate employers and employment counselors about the capabilities of older workers, which remain quite high in most occupations….The right of older workers to employment should be based on ability to perform the work rather than chronological age.[128]

The Plan of Action also makes a number of recommendations that relate to changing people’s attitudes about aging and combating stereotypical views of older persons as being incapable of functioning independently and having neither role nor status in society[129].

The 1991 Principles for Older Persons encourage governments to incorporate 18 principles into their national programmes whenever possible.  Once again, many of the principles are directly relevant to issues discussed in this paper, in particular access to health care, housing, income support, family and community care, institutional care and social and legal services.  Of particular interest are Principles 2 and 3 which affirm that older persons should have the opportunity to work and should be able to participate in determining “when and at what pace withdrawal from the labour force takes place”.

General Comment No. 6: The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Older Persons[130] is less subtle in its reference to the issue of mandatory retirement.  It states that parties to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights are obligated to pay particular attention to promoting and protecting the economic, social and cultural rights of older persons.  Towards that end, state parties should seek to expedite the trend towards elimination of mandatory retirement, one of the “few areas in which [age] discrimination continues to be tolerated”[131]. The Committee also stresses the need for measures to prevent discrimination on grounds of age in employment.

All of the issues that are identified in this paper as being of concern to older persons in Ontario have also been addressed in one or more of the UN documents on aging.  Moreover, many of the proposed policy directions in this paper are consistent with the various principles and recommendations developed by the UN to guide countries in the promotion of the rights of older persons.   Policy development in relation to age will take into account the international work in this area.


[118] Report of the World Assembly on Ageing, Vienna, 26 July – 6 August 1982 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.82.I.16), online: UN Programme on Ageing <http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/ageing>.
[119] General Assembly Resolution 48/91 of 16 December 1991.
[120] Fourth review and appraisal of the implementation of the International Plan of Action on Ageing, online: UN Programme on Ageing <http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/ageing>.
[121] For example, Recommendations 18, 19, 20, 21 and 24.
[122] Recommendations 1-11.
[123] Recommendations 13 and 34.
[124] Recommendations 18 and 22.
[125] For example, Recommendation 36.
[126] Recommendations 25 and 26.
[127] There are several references to this issue: discussion of the impact of aging on development, Recommendation 27 and 36.
[128] Recommendation 37.
[129] In particular, Recommendation 50.
[130] United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/1995/16/Rev.1 (1995).
[131] Ibid. at para. 12.